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The Trial of the Templars

Image of Templars

It was the morning of Friday 13th October 1307.  Without warning, the baillis and sénéchaux of the King of France stormed the properties of the Order of the Knights Templar.  Within the space of a day they had arrested all the Templars in France, except for no more than a couple of dozen.  Many of those who’d escaped arrest on the day were rounded up within a few short weeks.

To the shock of the medieval world, the Order stood accused of heresy.  In ordering the arrests, the king of France had written that the Templars were guilty of:

“A bitter thing, a lamentable thing, a thing which is horrible to contemplate, terrible to hear of, a detestable crime, an execrable evil, an abominable work, a detestable disgrace, a thing almost inhuman, indeed set apart from all humanity.”

Philip IV of France, 14 September 1307

These words marked the downfall of the Order.  Within a few years the Order entirely disbanded, its properties confiscated and many of its members imprisoned or burnt at the stake as heretics.

But what was it exactly that the Order was guilty of?  Were they even guilty of anything at all?

The Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon

The Order of the Poor Knights of Christ and the Temple of Solomon (or the Templars as history remembers them) began in 1119.  The Order was founded just twenty years after the First Crusade had taken Jerusalem from the Fatimid Caliphate.  Their purpose was to protect Christian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. 

Originally consisting of just nine knights and lacking in financial resources, the Order survived on charity.  The Templars famously adopted the symbol of two knights riding a single horse to emphasise their poverty.  They also adopted an iconic uniform – a white surcoat emblazoned with a red cross.  From these relatively humble beginnings a great military order would grow.

Image of 2 knights on a horse - the symbol of the Templars
Two poor knights sharing a horse – the characteristic symbol of the Templars

At the height of their powers the Order owned land and properties throughout Europe and the Holy Land and numbered some 10,000 – 15,000 members. 

During the time of the crusades, they became a formidable military force.  They played a key role in the battles for Palestine, providing a core of skilled knights to shore up the armies of the crusader states.

The Fall of Outremer

For two centuries, the crusaders fought for control of the Holy Land.  They named the kingdom they established there Outremer.  At the height of its power Outremer would encompass much of Palestine, the Lebanese coast and parts of Syria and south-eastern Turkey.

However, by the end of the C13th, an increasingly united Islamic world was gradually driving back the European invaders.  The end finally came in 1291 when Acre, the last middle eastern city held by the crusaders, fell to the Mamelukes.  The kingdom of Outremer was no more.

The Templars were there to the last.  Many died defending Acre but, in the end, their efforts were in vain.

Image of the siege of Acre in 1291
The fall of Acre 1291

The Templars in 1300

Despite the defeat at Acre, the Templars were still a formidable force.  They owned significant lands across Europe, had accumulated substantial wealth and commanded significant numbers of men.  Over the past two centuries the Order had grown to include not only soldiers but also a whole range of brothers engaged in supporting activities.  It even had its own clergy, charged with attending to the spiritual needs of the brethren.

As the Order’s power and influence had grown, it had become increasingly involved in banking.  Initially, the Templars had issued loans to crusaders to help them equip themselves and pay for their passage to the Holy Land.  However, as time went on, the Order increasingly expanded its banking activities to offer loans more widely.

Nevertheless, after 1291, the primary purpose for which the Order existed (defending pilgrims in the Holy Land) was effectively defunct.

A new Crusade

Jacques de Molay, the Grand Master of the Templars, spent much of the 1290s travelling around Europe attempting to garner support for another crusade.  He’d continued to deploy Templar resources in the eastern Mediterranean to raid and harass coastal cities like Acre and Alexandria.  He even strengthened the island stronghold of Ruad, just off the Syrian coast.  His plan was to use Ruad as a staging ground for an invasion to re-take the old Syrian Templar citadel of Tortosa.

But de Molay’s efforts came to nothing.  The Mamelukes wiped out the last Templar base on Ruad in 1302 and he could persuade none of the kings of Europe to definitively commit any significant forces to another crusade.

The danger of innovation

In late 1306 or early 1307, de Molay met with the pope to discuss how to recover the Holy Land.  His plan was grandiose and unrealistic.  He conceived of an army of 15,000 knights, 50,000 foot soldiers and a large supporting fleet.  To raise such a force would clearly require significant support from the kings of Europe and the Italian city states.  At the time, there was no sign that any support on such a grand scale would be forthcoming. 

The pope raised the possibility that the major military orders should perhaps merge so that they might better pool their resources.  Although de Molay’s response hid behind the veneer of apparent objectivity, it is clear he was hostile to the proposal.  Innovation, argued de Molay, was always dangerous.  The truth was that the Grand Master had no fresh ideas.  Times had clearly changed but the Order was struggling to adapt.

Concerning the recovery of the Holy Land

This was not the first time that anyone had proposed merging the orders and it was an idea that had some support outside the papacy.  One of its most vocal advocates was a Norman lawyer by the name of Pierre Dubois.  In 1306 Dubois wrote a tract entitled ‘Concerning the recovery of the Holy Land’.  In it he argued strongly for the merging of the Orders, since they…

“…have such a great quantity of rents, crops and possessions on this side of the Mediterranean Sea, which for a long time now have made insufficient contribution to the Holy Land.”

Pierre Dubois, 1306

The future of the Order, at this stage, could not have looked more uncertain. 

Suspicions

Prior to the arrests of 1307 the Templars had been subject to some vague suspicions that perhaps all was not well.  New members joined the Order in a reception ceremony at the Templar Preceptories.  These ceremonies usually occurred behind closed doors, and usually only with other members of the Order present.

During his reception a new brother would sign over all his property and worldly goods to the Order and take vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience.  The structure of the Templars was similar to a monastic order, following many of the same rules as the Cistercian monks.  So, becoming a Templar was a major commitment.

However, the wealth and power of the Order naturally bred jealousy in many quarters.  And the secretive nature of their reception rites raised suspicions in the minds of some.

However, there were no specific allegations of heresy against the Templars until around two years before the arrests.

The Accusations against the Templars

Initially, the accusations of heresy stemmed from a disgruntled Templar following his expulsion from the Order.  He made his accusations to the French king who, in turn discussed it with the pope.  The pope in his turn discussed it with de Molay.  At the time the pope was highly sceptical of the accusations and the general feeling was that they were false.  Nothing more than vindictive lies from a man who clearly had cause to hold a grudge against the Templars.

However, by October 1307, the subsequent investigation resulted in the arrests.

The Articles of Accusation finally appeared in August 1308.  They contained a long and detailed list of charges.  Some of the more colourful allegations included:

“Item, that they made those whom they received spit on the cross…

… that they told the brothers whom they received that they could have carnal relations together…

… that in each province they had idols, namely heads, of which some had three faces, some had one and others had a human skull.

Item, that they adored these idols or idol, and especially in their great chapters and assemblies…”

Articles of Accusation, August 1308

Demon worship

The precise nature of the idols the Templars were accused of venerating (and what they supposedly represented) were not spelt out in the official accusations.  However, during the subsequent interrogation of the Templars, one confessed that he had seen an idol like a bearded head and claimed that it was the figure of the demon Baphomet.

Image of the demon Baphomet
The image of Baphomet, as represented by the C19th French author, Eliphas Levi

The demon Baphomet was first mentioned at the time of the First Crusade.   Troubadours of the time used the name to denote Mohammed and a crusader from the period claimed that the local population prayed to this demon.  Baphomet seems to have been conflated with Mohammed on at least some occasions in the European mind.  It may even be that the word Baphomet was simply an Old French form of the name Mohammed.

But was it true?  Were the Templars really worshipping idols in the form of heads representing a demon?

Doubts

Initially the arrests occurred only in France at the instigation of the French king.  Elsewhere in Europe other monarchs were more sceptical.  The pope was slow to confirm that he had even ordered the arrests.  He had almost certainly authorised an investigation but there remained some uncertainty over whether he’d ordered any detentions.

Aside from France, the major centres of Templar activity in Europe were in England and Aragon.  Elsewhere the Order was more sparse.

Edward II of England was sceptical and declared that he could not give ‘easy credence’ to the accusations.  However, in November 1307 the pope finally issued the bull Pastoralis praeeminentiae, authorising the arrests.  Edward II acted in January, although he seems to have simply placed many of the English Templars under house arrest in their Preceptories.  

James II of Aragon was similarly reluctant to believe the accusations at first.  In the end, he too was persuaded to move against the Templars.

Arrests followed in other European countries in a somewhat piecemeal manner.  The speed of the arrests and rigour of the subsequent investigation also varied, depending on the ruler and the seriousness with which they took the charges. 

However, nowhere were the arrests made as swiftly or the investigation pursued as vigorously as it was in France.

Confessions

Over a period of time confessions were extracted in support of the accusations.  Individual Templars confirmed they had spat on the cross, participated in homosexual acts, venerated idols, denied Christ etc.

The problem with all these confessions was that they were extracted under torture or under the threat of torture.  Their veracity is therefore highly questionable to say the least.  It is also the case that torture was only systematically employed in France.  As a result, most of these incriminating confessions are French.  Nowhere else obtained significant numbers of such confessions.

Edward II of England and James II of Aragon were both far more reluctant to employ torture to extract confessions.  As a result, initial interrogations in both countries yielded mass denials of any wrongdoing.  It took a few years and the eventual application of torture to finally obtain a mere handful of confessions.

Secret rites

One of the accusations revolved around the secrecy of the Templar initiation rites.  Certainly, the rites often took place in secret and the Order actively discouraged non-Templars from attending. 

However, initiation rites did not always happen in secret.  In England, for example, one initiation ceremony had been performed in the presence of a crowd of 200 witnesses from outside the Order.  One senior English Templar explained that the rites were only usually held in secret to discourage ‘foolishness’.

But, at the end of the day, secrecy alone proves nothing.

Homosexuality

The accusation of homosexuality probably had some truth in it.  In an Order of 10,000-15,000 supposedly celibate men, it would be surprising if none of them had ever broken their vows of chastity.  There were almost certainly individual instances of homosexuality. 

However, it would be a great leap to take that as firm evidence of a ritualistic institutional practice.

The only confessions detailing institutional ritualised homosexual practice were extracted under torture, or under the threat of torture.  Virtually all such confessions originated in France, where torture was most universally applied.

Heretical practice

The only real evidence for heretical practice that seems to have come to light without the application of torture arose from some of the English interrogations. 

Here it appeared that some of the brethren misguidedly believed that the Masters of the Order were able to hear confessions and grant absolution.  In fact, the Masters of the Order were not ordained Priests and therefore not authorised to perform the confession.

This was technically a heretical practice but more a product of genuinely mistaken belief than systematic and deliberate wrongdoing.

Idol worship

As to the actual evidence for more serious heretical practice – denial of Christ, idol worship and demon worship – confessions of such acts were only obtainable by torture. 

Evidence based on confessions obtained under torture can’t be relied upon.  But, aside from the confessions, was there any other evidence?

If the Templars had been practicing esoteric rites and worshipping idols, then surely we might expect that there would be some form of material evidence.  Perhaps occult books or ritual paraphernalia of some kind?  And, of course, if the Templars really were worshipping idols – where were all these idols?  If these acts were indeed an institution-wide problem, then surely many such items must have existed, spread across Europe.  But even in France, where the affair was pursued with the greatest vigour, surprisingly little material evidence was uncovered.

Not one incriminating occult book or work of heretical writing was found.  Neither were any of the head idols described in the confessions ever found, despite an extensive search. 

Guillaume Pidoye, the royal custodian of the Templar goods at Paris searched for several weeks and was only able to find a single artefact that might count as a head idol.

It was a large silver-gilt woman’s head.  Inside it contained fragments from a woman’s skull wrapped in linen.  It was said to be a relic – the remains of the skull of one of eleven thousand virgins.  It did not match the description of the any of the heads described in the confessions.  Nothing else was ever found or produced in any court.

The bottom line is that, aside from highly dubious confessions obtained by torture, there is no evidence to show that the Templars were guilty of heresy.

The Chief Prosecutor

According to the French court, the arrests of October 1307 had been made by the officers of Philip IV acting at the pope’s request.

On the surface of things this appears to be true.  Philip had certainly discussed the matter with the pope and had been asked to investigate the allegations.  It is also true that Philip had made the arrests following a specific request made by Guillaume de Paris, the Papal Inquisitor in France.  And it is also true that the pope issued a papal bull in November, instructing the monarchs of Europe to arrest the Templars.

However, a closer look reveals that Guillaume de Paris had close links to the French court and was, in many ways, Philip’s man.  It is also the case that the papal bull was issued after Philip acted and not before.

In fact, Pope Clement V does not appear to have specifically authorised anything other than an investigation.  Philip IV, it seems, colluded with Guillaume de Paris to jump the gun, and make the arrests.  Presenting Clement with a fait accompli, Philip essentially badgered the pope into endorsing his actions after the fact.

The truth is that the real driving force behind the accusations, the arrests and the trial of the Templars was Philip IV of France.  But why?

Philip the Fair

Philip IV became king of France in 1285.  He was the eleventh of the Capetian line and, because of his famed physical beauty, he was widely known as Philip the Fair. 

Portrait of Philip the Fair
Philip the Fair, king of France

The personality of Philip the Fair is obscured to us by the fact that, throughout his reign, he mainly acted through his officials.  A number of key officers came and went during his time, each serving as his primary policy maker and mouthpiece.  They were the men who, in general, took the lead in announcing policies and organised whatever it was that needed organising.  All the while Philip himself remained to largely in the background.

This led some people at the time to characterise Philip as something of a non-entity, guilty of inaction whilst his corrupt officers manipulated him.  In the 1290s the dominant courtier was Pierre Flotte, the keeper of seals.  After Flotte’s death in 1302 a new favourite emerged in the form of Guillaume de Nogaret.  When Nogaret died in 1313, Enguerrand de Marigny, the royal chamberlain, stepped to the fore.

One commentator of the time compared Philip to an owl.  A bird that looks magnificent, but which doesn’t actually do anything of any use.

The puppet master

However, an analysis of Philip’s policies reveals an underlying consistency that spans his reign.  Documentary evidence also shows that Philip was indeed actively engaged, sometimes even directly managing events from behind the scenes.

It seems all too clear that it was Philip himself who called the shots.  It suited Philip’s purpose to let the likes of Flotte and Nogaret take most of the blame for unpopular policies.  The reality was that the Flottes and Nogarets were simply Philip’s henchmen tasked with doing his dirty work – and there was plenty of dirty work to be done.

The king needs money

During his reign Philip became embroiled with a number of costly disputes.  In the early part of his reign a dispute with Edward I of England over Gascony was followed by ongoing conflict with the Flemish.  The resulting wars quickly drained the royal coffers.  Philip needed money.

The taxes Philip levied were high and unpopular and inevitably led to dissent and unrest.  There was only so far Philip could go with general taxation without risking riots and revolts.

A second source of money was the Church.  And so, Philip’s regime put a great deal of energy into taxing it.  So much energy in fact that, according to one churchman of the time, Philip’s sergeants…

“…with a multitude of armed men, rushing up to the abbeys and houses of canons and other ecclesiastical persons, break into houses and doors, cellars, chests and barns, take what they can find with them, and sell it at a great market so that they can have the money immediately.”

Guillaume Le Maire, Bishop of Angers

Another scheme was to ask rich people to loan the king money.  The only problem was that it wasn’t really a request so much as a command backed up by threats.  And the chances of getting any of that money back were pretty slim to say the least.

Pick on a wealthy minority

Picking on a wealthy minority was another good way of raising money fast without upsetting too many people. 

In 1291 it was the turn of the Lombards.  Two families of Lombard bankers and financiers were especially active in France.  The king had borrowed significant sums of money from them, and, at the time, it looked likely he’d borrow more.  However, instead he ordered the general arrest of several Lombards, accompanied by the seizure of their assets.  The pretext being that the Lombards were apparently guilty of making usurious profits.  This had the double bonus of generating hard cash fast and allowing Philip to cancel his debts.

In 1295 it was the turn of the Jews.  Jewish money lenders were the target.  Usurious profiteering again provided the pretext for arrests and asset confiscation.

Like the Jews and the Lombards, the Templars were a relatively small but wealthy minority.  Now that the Holy Land was lost their primary raison d’être was gone.  There were also plenty of people who were jealous of their power and others who were suspicious of their secrecy.   By another happy coincidence, the king owed the Templars money – a lot of money.  Then along came a disgruntled former member of the Order with a grudge, making wild accusations of heresy. 

For a man like Philip the Fair, it was simply too good an opportunity to miss.

Endgame

After a few years of investigation, interrogation and torture, Philip finally had what he needed.  There were enough damaging confessions to condemn the Templars.

On May 12th 1310, Philip had 54 Templars burnt at the stake as heretics.

On 22 March 1312, the pope officially disbanded the Order of the Knights Templar.

Jacques de Molay himself initially confessed to heresy.  However, he withdrew his confession, claiming his only wrongdoing had been to give a false confession to begin with.  He was declared a lapsed heretic and burnt at the stake on 18th March 1314.

Image of the execution of de Molay of the Templars
The execution of Jacques de Molay

Outside France, however, the Templars were generally treated less harshly.  Most were simply pensioned off and only a few remained in prison.  With their order disbanded, most former Templars simply blended back into society.  Some joined monastic orders, others quietly lived out their lives on their pensions.

‘Expenses’

There was still a potential problem for Philip, however.  The wealth of the Templars technically belonged to the Catholic Church. 

Thus once the Order disbanded, it was down to the pope to decide what should be done with their lands and properties.  The decision was taken to hand it all over to the Hospitallers.

Philip proceeded to comply with this decision (very slowly) and only after getting his outstanding Templar debts cancelled and, of course, deducting his ‘expenses’.  His expenses were, or so he claimed, only those costs incurred by the arrests, the investigation and trials.  

After claiming an initial settlement sum of 200,000 livres tournois, he later ‘discovered’ additional expenses that needed to be claimed (a further 60,000).   After his death his son, Philip V, later remembered a further amount of expenses that had apparently been forgotten about (50,000 this time).  The apple, it seemed, had not fallen far from the tree.

Elsewhere in Europe other monarchs proved similarly slow to hand over Templar lands to the Hospitallers.  The fall of the Templars provided the monarchs of Europe with an opportunity to make some money out of the whole sorry affair.  It was an opportunity few would allow to pass.

Only once these ‘expenses’ were fully paid up were the lands and properties finally handed over to the Hospitallers.  At the end of it all, one Hospitaller ruefully commented that their order was poorer after inheriting the wealth of the Templars than it had been before.

The ‘missing’ treasure of the Templars

Amongst the confessions obtained by the French during the interrogation of the Templars, is the curious tale related by Jean de Châlons from June 1308.

According to de Châlons, Gerard de Villiers, the Master of France had been tipped off about the imminent arrests in 1307.  He therefore escaped arrest and spirited away a large horde of Templar treasure. According to de Châlons “Brother Hugues de Châlons fled with the whole treasure.”  Brother Hugues and the treasure had apparently set out to sea to destinations unknown in a fleet of 18 galleons.

It was a preposterous story, and no other witness could be found to corroborate his claim.  For one thing, there is no record of the Templars possessing a fleet of anything like this size in France.  In La Rochelle, for example, they possessed just two cargo ships, unsuited to anything other than short voyages. It also seems highly unlikely that such a large fleet of ships could have slipped out of a French port unnoticed. Nevertheless, the confession has sparked a lot of speculation since about lost Templar treasures ever since.

Of course, there is one very plausible way in which a large amount of Templar treasure might have mysteriously vanished in 1307.  Philip the Fair demonstrated very clearly throughout his reign that, if there was one thing he was really good at, it was making large amounts of treasure disappear really quickly.

Templars – Innocent or Guilty?

So, were the Templars guilty of heresy and demon worship?  Or were they the innocent victims of Philip the Fair’s Machiavellian scheming?

Given the evidence and what we know of Philip the Fair, the latter would seem to be by far the most likely scenario.   

It is, let’s be honest, tempting to want to believe all the romantic tales of sinister occult rites, demon worship, secretive esoteric orders, and lost treasures.  A story about a greedy, ruthless king is far less glamorous, even if it is far more realistic.

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References & further reading:

Testimony of Jean de Châlons

The Trial of the Templars, Malcolm Barber, Cambridge University Press, 1978 (second edition 2012)

Wikipedia – The trial of the Templars

Images

Image of three Templars – Munchener Bilderbogen, Unknown Artist (from Wiki Commons)

Two knights sharing a horse – Matthew Paris, Chronica Majorca, C13th (from Wiki Commons)

Fall of Acre – Dominique Papety (from Wiki Commons)

Baphomet – Eliphas Levi 1865 (from Wiki Commons)

Philip the Fair – Anon C14th (from Wiki Commons)

The execution of Jacques de Molay – Giovanni Villani C14th (from Wiki Commons)

1 thought on “The Trial of the Templars”

  1. Jessica Saunders

    This is great. An awful lot of fanciful nonsense is written about the Templars. They are certainly fascinating but most of the stories about their treasure, interest in the occult, or links with Freemasonry are just that – stories. Unfortunately they are fun and hugely beguiling. I was first alerted to the Templars by Henry Lincoln in an edition of Chronicle broadcast by the BBC in 1970 – The Lost Treasure of Jerusalem. It is a fascinating programme but I suspect its connection with history is rather flimsy.
    And Phillip – not so fair!

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